By Philippe de Lespinay
February 1967 was a very bad month for the slot car racing industry in America. After two years of uncertainty, the business was now rapidly vanishing as thousands of franchised and independent commercial slot car raceways were closing their doors after experiencing declining interest and sales.
Slot car racing had experienced the biggest bubble ever seen in the history of any hobby, and it would take nearly 30 years for it to regroup and be prosperous again.
Classic Industries of Culver City, California, had seen its sales growing from virtually nothing in 1964 to millions of dollars by the end of 1966, boosted by the sales of one of the most successful slot cars ever produced, the Manta Ray. Designed by stylist John Power, the rather odd-looking model vaguely based on the Dean Jeffries show car appealed to younger enthusiasts. It was fast and rugged, handled reasonably well and was available ready to race with no need for assembly like most other models produced in 1965. Its success was simply prodigious and over one million of them were sold.
After a business dispute with John Power, causing his departure from the company, Classic continued on their success by hiring Robert Cadaret, a former General Motors artist who worked under Bill Mitchell at the GM Design Studio. Cadaret delivered in the form of truly awesome models that again, were targeting the young, while frowned upon by grown-up scale enthusiasts. But sales success was soon followed by increasing difficulty to gather new orders from distributors who themselves had a problem collecting receivables from raceway owners now in trouble. By the end of 1966, Classic, as many other slot-car manufacturing companies, was looking at bleak revenues and had no ideas for new products able to reverse the trend.
Classic president Sam Bergman and general manager Ilmars Kersels needed something new to save the company from impending financial ruin, and looked to Japan for quick help. Inspecting reports about the evolution of the hobby, they saw their possible salvation in what was supposed to be the new big thing, radio controlled model cars. With no manufacturing capability of their own since Classic had always been an assembler of subcontracted parts, they analyzed what was available and could be quickly turned into a Classic product without actually investing in new tooling. It just happened that the Masudaya Toy Company of Tokyo, Japan, had been producing a large 1956 toy of an Oldsmobile “88” made of pressed steel, and controlled by a non-proportional remote system named “RadiCon”. Masudaya was later absorbed by another Japanese toy maker also involved in slot car racing, Nichimo.
By the late 1960s, the large tin car had given way to smaller 1/20 scale models of American cars, especially Chrysler products for which Nichimo had obtained a license. These radio controlled models were now made of plastic material with a tinplate base, fitted with basic features such as non-proportional steering as well as forward and reverse command buttons for the on-board electric motor. The “RadiCon” name was changed to “ProCon”, and the large cardboard boxes were now smaller plastic cases featuring a carrying handle.
The Nichimo people were all too pleased to make a deal with Kersels, who ordered a small number of display models for the oncoming 1967 Chicago Hobby Show. The clear-plastic boxes of the sets included the control unit, a receiver wired to the unit, a long coil of insulated wire necessary to limit the car’s travel inside a circle formed by this wire and the car. These were identical to that marketed by Nichimo, but with the Classic name embossed on the top of the boxes in black letters, in the manner of the previous Classic clear-plastic boxes. At least four samples were produced, and one of the samples bodies, that of a Plymouth Barracuda, was vacuum plated with aluminum powder deposit. Other identified samples were of a 1966 Mercury Marauder of which body was molded in white plastic.
Picture: The Classic booth photographed the day before the 1967 Chicago Hobby Show
Classic received the samples just in time for the show, and period photography obtained by the author clearly shows the new product, one of the new Mercury Marauder models being actually run on a small track fitted on a specially built table, and at least three racing sets displayed on the walls of the built-up booth. Things were looking up again, that is, until an attack from nature ruined their hopes.
The Nichimo Mercury Marauder ready for demonstration to distributors and retailers.
The three samples on the Classic display shelves. From left to right: a Mercury Marauder, a Plymouth Barracuda and an unidentified model.
Two days before the show, the winter skies opened and Chicago experienced one of its worst blizzards in over 50 years. Deep snowfall, ice and wind forced the entire city and a good part of the state of Illinois to a grinding halt. No flights could land or take off, no trains or road vehicles were able to provide any transportation. Only a few local distributors and retailers were able to attend the show, and the repercussions upon the entire hobby business were huge. With no new orders, dozens of already financially wounded slot car companies went bankrupt, while others with other product lines pulled the plug on all slot car production.
A few months later, Classic also called it quits and sold its remaining inventories at pennies on the dollar to RehCo, a large distributor in Cincinnati. Classic then concentrated on other hobby product lines, some of it already on display the the same trade show such as this “Classic Art Forms” sculpture set:
The new radio controlled cars never made it past those few samples. At this time, a single survivor is known to exist, that more than likely was given to Trost Hobbies in Chicago by Classic at that very show as it was common practice. Trost was one of the largest hobby distributors in the country and one of Classic’s best customers. In 1995, Trost Hobbies began liquidating their remaining 1960s inventories and created a bonanza for collectors, who were able to obtain pristine slot cars sets, parts and cars that had been dormant in the company’s vaults for decades. This Classic/Nichimo Plymouth Barracuda is suspected to have come from there. Brokered to the LASCM by a well-known toy dealer, it is now one of the stars of the world’s largest slot car museums on the face of the earth.
The sole known survivor of the four samples on display at the LASCM
Below are pictures of one of the few examples known of the Nichimo Mercury Marauder radio controlled models to have survived. The body molding is excellent and probably copied from an American AMT model kit. Classic had two of these models at the 1967 trade show.
A surviving Nichimo Mercury Marauder and its control unit.